“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God...” (Eph. 1:1a)1
Back before there was texting or internet messaging there was this thing called email. One would sit at their computer and type out a message. (Yes, you actually had to type it out on a computer because you didn’t have a phone yet!) When you hit “send” it would more or less instantaneously send the message to the person addressed.
But back before there was email, there were these things called letters. This was even more old school. To write a letter one had to actually pick up a writing instrument such as a pen or pencil and physically put words down on a piece of paper. When you were done, you would place the letter into an envelope to be delivered to your intended recipient. There was even this organization called “the Post Office” that would deliver these letters (for a small fee)!
Letters were very important in the ancient world as they were one of the only ways to communicate across long distances. If you wanted to get a message to someone in the ancient world—with no telephone, cell phone, fax, email, or messaging—your options where pretty much limited to trying to deliver a message verbally (with all of the risks that entailed) and writing a letter.
There was a benefit to having such a handwritten document because once the letter was written down it could provide a more or less permanent record of the conversation—for as long as the letter or a copy of it survived. This would enable the letter to speak beyond its original context down through history. Many such letters have come down to us from antiquity and they serve as important sources of historical information.
This post begins a series of studies in a book of the Bible that was originally a letter. It was written by a man named Paul. And it was written to a group of Christians in a city called Ephesus. Therefore we know this letter by the name of Ephesians.
Now with any letter it is important to know who wrote it and who they were writing to. Such information provides vital context that at times even affects our ability to interpret the letter. An odd little feature of modern letters is that the most important thing we care about—namely, who sent the letter—is typically the last thing noted in the document!2 So if you have ever received a letter you’ll likely tear through the pages to the end to see who signed off. (And you can imagine your frustration if upon reaching the end of the letter you find that there is no name listed!)
Well in the ancient world they did things a little bit differently. The thing you wanted to know most, that is who sent the letter, is listed first. Such is also the case with our current letter. It begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God...” (Eph. 1:1a). In the following post we will look at two things about the sender of this letter: his personal history and his position as an apostle. We will end with some personal application for us.
Paul’s Personal History
An important preliminary thing to note about Paul is that he wasn’t always called Paul. He began life with the name Saul. Saul was born in a prominent city named Tarsus which was known for commerce and for education.3 He was raised in the city of Jerusalem probably from the age of thirteen on4 (Acts 22:3). While in Jerusalem Saul sat under the teaching of a famous rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).5 He would one day describe his upbringing in this way: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). In modern terms, Paul had a PhD in Old Testament so to speak. He was also very proud of both his education and his Jewish background. In Philippians 3:5-6 he describes his impeccable Jewish pedigree: “...circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” We see how truly zealous he was the first time he is mentioned in the book of Acts. While Stephen was being executed for his testimony to Jesus, Luke tells us, “And the witnesses [those stoning Stephen] laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).
The fact that Saul would have countenanced such violence strikes us as somewhat extreme in our age of tolerance. But he was willing to go this far because, simply put—he was convinced that Christianity was heresy. A modern Jewish perspective may help us understand this more. Dennis Prager (of Religion on the Line and Prager University fame) in a forum with Alistair Begg called “Ask a Jew, Ask a Gentile” recently commented:
This is the important part to me. I don’t have an issue with people who believe Jesus is the Messiah. The Jewish issue has never been the messianic issue. Jews have believed that various Jews at different times have been their Messiah. ...They’ve never...been ostracized; they’ve never created a different movement or different religion... The issue for Jews was the divinity claim that Christianity made not the messianic claim. If the only claim people made about Jesus was, ‘He’s the Jewish Messiah’ then they would have been ‘Jews for Jesus’ literally. Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah. It’s the Trinitrian and divinity claims that caused the creation of a second religion.6
Saul of Tarsus would have agreed with this assessment. Prager went on to say:
I believe that God wants the world to come to Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. I believe that that is for the whole world. Any religion that brings the world to the God of Sinai and the Ten Commandment of Sinai is my ally. At its best...that is what it [Christianity] does.”7
Now we may discuss/debate Prager’s understanding of the continuing relevance of the Mosaic Law or how the Ten Commandments are supposed to relate to Christian life. Many have and many will discuss those issues. But the important point to note here is that if the divinity claim of Christianity is false, then Christianity doesn’t really bring the world to the Ten Commandments because it would present a distorted picture of God that would be in flagrant violation of the first two commandments. If the divinity claim is false that is. Saul of Tarsus knew this. And so, more consistently than Dennis Prager, he considered the new movement of Christianity not to be a friend to his faith but rather a foe. Saul was so vehement to stamp it out because he considered it to be blatant idolatry. And the Torah commanded that idolaters in the land of Israel should be killed (Deut. 13:6-18).8
So Paul set out to obey (or so he thought) this Torah precept. But while he was on this mission, something got in his way. On a road between Jerusalem and Damascus, he was suddenly confronted by a bright light. He heard the surprising words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He did not yet know who was speaking to him. But he knew that whoever this was, this person was Lord. Imagine Saul’s surprise when his question, “Who are you, Lord?” was answered by the words, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).
After Saul was arrested by Jesus in this dramatic way, he began to go by the name Paul (Acts 13:9). Saul was the name of the first king of Israel—King Saul—who had also come from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam. 9:1, 21).9 Such a name may have reflected pride in his Jewish descent. Paul on the other hand is a Greek name whose meaning is “little.”10 (Imagine putting that on one of those name cards!) It is significant that Paul sees himself in such humble terms after his conversion. Because the office he was appointed to by the Lord Jesus that day on the road to Damascus was very important.
Paul’s Apostolic Office
The most basic meaning of the term “apostle” would be something like “a messenger.” A messenger conveys someone else’s message—they serve as a representative of and for that person. So having noted both of these things, D. A. Carson suggests that the phrase “special representative” captures the idea of this word in English. Or perhaps even something like “special messenger.”11 An apostle is someone who is commissioned as a representative of someone else.
Perhaps the idea of an ambassador would be helpful. (In fact, Paul uses the word “ambassador” to describe himself later in Ephesians 6:20 and in 2 Corinthians 5:20). For example, the President of the United States has ambassadors that he sends to represent the United States to various countries. These ambassadors have some level of the President’s own authority delegated to them. They are commissioned to represent the United States to other world governments and have some degree of authority to transact business with them.
Now an ambassador is only as important as the person who sent them. Paul is not an ambassador of the President of the United States—as important as that would be. No, he has been sent by One far more important than that. He is an apostle of...Christ Jesus.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry he appointed twelve men as his apostles. Mark 3:13-15 describes their commission and their task: “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” Other men are later referred to as apostles outside this initial group, such as Matthias who replaced Judas (Acts 1:26), Jesus’ brother James (Gal. 1:19), and of course Paul.
There were several general characteristics of this group of men called apostles:12
They were witnesses to the ministry and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21; cf. 1 Cor. 9:1).13
They were personally commissioned by Jesus himself to this office.14
As personal representatives of Jesus himself, they occupied a unique position and, therefore, exercised authority over the church in a unique and foundational way. When an apostle was speaking by the Spirit of Christ in their office as apostle it was as good as if Jesus Christ himself was speaking (2 Cor. 13:3).
Now it is pretty clear from these general contours of apostleship that no one in the church today can claim the office of apostle in this sense. (If there were such an apostle in the church today then any apostolic instruction they wrote to us would have to be included as an appendix in our Bibles! It would have to be treated as if it were instruction from the Lord Jesus himself.) So there are no Apostles in the church today with a capital “A”. But we may say there are apostles in the church today with a little “a”. We see them in 2 Corinthians 8:23 where they are called “messengers [apostoloi] of the churches.” We call them missionaries.15 And although the office of Apostle (with a capital A) ceased with the death of the last apostle (John), we still have the apostolic testimony and witness. It has been passed down to us in the New Testament—where we find preserved for us the writings of the apostles. Such as, for example, the letter to the Ephesians.
Paul doesn’t just say he is an apostle of Christ, however. He also notes that this was “by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1a). He didn’t volunteer for the position! Rather, it was God’s purpose and plan to appoint him to this role. This is the pattern of God’s appointment throughout Scripture—it is God’s sovereign initiative that places people into positions of service rather than men who decide they would like the role. Remember Moses? He was eighty years old and well content to live the rest of his days as a shepherd. Any thought he may have had in his youth about delivering his people from Egypt was apparently long gone. When the Lord sends him to Pharaoh and patiently answers all his objections and concerns, Moses finally just replies, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else!” (Exod. 4:13). Remember Jeremiah? God comes to Jeremiah and says he has appointed him as a prophet (Jer. 1:5). And Jeremiah objects that he doesn’t know how to speak! (Jer. 1:6). Remember the other apostles mentioned earlier? Jesus appointed those whom he wanted in the office. He didn’t give a survey to see who was interested in the ministry opening. Even the apparent exception to this pattern—Isaiah, who is famous for his voluntary exclamation, “Here I am! Send me” (Isa. 6:8)—also fits the bill. Think about it. Who else suddenly had a vision of the Lord in all of his glory in the temple? Isaiah’s response shows a willing heart. But it is clear from the overall context of Isaiah 6 that the Lord had sought him out first.
None of these guys were looking to get into ministry. They hadn’t sought God out and twisted his arm into giving them a prophetic or apostolic role. Rather, God sought them out. Because it was according to his will. Just like Paul was appointed to the office of apostle according to God’s will.
This theme of the will of God is going to be very important in the opening section of Ephesians. In Eph. 1:5 Paul mentions God’s will that we would be his adopted sons. In Eph. 1:9 we see God revealing the mystery of his will. And Eph.1:11 depicts God working everything out according to his will. So Paul’s apostleship here at the beginning of the letter is merely an individual example of the overarching outworking of the will of God in history.
Personal Application: Message Delivered
When we look at Paul’s life and his office as an apostle there are several things we might be able to take away for our own lives.
(1) Paul’ apostleship is proof that God can turn any life around! The conversion of Saul of Tarsus was stunningly dramatic. In modern terms, it would be like God taking a terrorist like al-Qaeda leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and turning him into an evangelist like Billy Graham. Since God is able to turn lives around in such a dramatic way, we should never write people off as beyond the reach of the hand of God. And we should never write ourselves off as beyond the reach of the hand of God.
(2) Paul’s apostleship can encourage us to look at the will of God in our own lives. Just as God had a specific purpose and plan for Paul—he was an apostle by the will of God!—so he also has a specific purpose and plan for each one of us who are in Christ. And just as Paul’s role as an apostle was an individual example of the outworking of the will of God, so the things that we are called to in our own lives are individual examples of the outworking of the will of God.
If you are in Christ, God has a role for you. You’ve not been called to the apostolic office the same way that Paul was. You’re not going to try to write a book of the Bible (I hope). But God still has a plan for you.
He may call you to focus on missions work.
He may call you to focus on local evangelism.
He may call you to just focus on sharing Jesus with that specific coworker or neighbor.
He may call you to focus on above-and-beyond-the-ordinary prayer.
He may call you to focus on mercy ministry in your community.
He will call you to serve the body of Christ and a lost world with whatever giftings he has bestowed upon you.
Whatever it is, he has a purpose for your life. If you are in Christ you can say with confidence what the psalmist says in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me...”
(3) Paul’s apostleship should impact the way we approach the book of Ephesians. Ephesians is apostolic instruction! We must listen to the apostles because it is the same as if we are listening to Jesus Christ himself (cf. 2 Cor. 13:3). So we should come to these studies in Ephesians with a sense of expectancy, openness, and willingness to receive from the Lord. For it is Christ who is speaking to us in his Word through his appointed apostle.
1 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 After writing this I had the sense that someone else had said something similar, possibly Jonathan Pennington of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
3 “Tarsus,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, eds. Merrill F. Unger, R. K. Harrison, Howard F. Vos, and Cyril J. Barber (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), 1253.
4 “Paul,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 968.
5 Cf. independently (or at least before review) John MacAurther, Ephesians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986), xi.
6 Dennis Prager and Alistair Begg, “Ask a Jew, Ask a Gentile,” available at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=23Y3tNco1EI (accessed April 24, 2019).
7 Prager, “Ask a Jew, Ask a Gentile.”
8 Cf. N. T. Wright’s discussion of the Pharisaic opposition to Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996], 440-442).
9 MacAurther, Ephesians, xi.
10 “Paul,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 968.
11 This opening section on apostle follows D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 28, 30; cf. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 911.
12 Much of the understanding and treatment of apostleship below closely follows Grudem, Systematic Theology, 905-911.
13 Paul is a partial exception here in that he was a witness of the resurrection only.
14 Matthias (Judas’s replacement) is a possible exception here having been appointed by Christ through the commissioning of the other apostles.
15 Following David Cannistraci, The Gift of Apostle: A Biblical Look at Apostleship and How God is Using It to Bless His Church Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996); cf. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 906 (but cf. the caution offered on p. 911).